el dia de los muertos
earlier in the year i discovered book slam, a monthly gathering where writers, poets and story tellers share their writing with an audience, there is usually some live music and, of course, a bar and food available – it describes itself as “london’s best literary club night”. it’s a really interesting way to spend an evening encountering writers and musicians you might not otherwise come across, as well as meet occasional heroes.
at my first book slam my favourite performance was courtesy of poet and storymaker rachel rose reid, whose mailing list i signed up for. in the late summer rachel’s newsletter talked about a planned project – el dia de los muertos celebration meals – and asked for people to host these. i volunteered and that is how david and i ended up hosting a mexican day of the dead lunch, for a mixed group of friends and strangers, last month.
all the hard work was done by rachel and pablo from poppy perezz, who arrived at our house laden with boxes, garlands, flowers, blankets and other decorations. very soon the living room was transformed and we now had an ofrenda (aka an altar, as shown above) around which we would conduct the rituals associated with the el dia de los muertos celebration and eat lunch. the lovely picture above the fireplace, a day of the dead wedding, was loaned by a very kind friend who bought it when travelling on her honeymoon - thanks fran!
i didn’t know much about el dia de los muertos when i offered to host this lunch, but having spent the afternoon with rachel and pablo, i think of it as a way to celebrate our lives and those of people who have died but continue to have an impact on us, both in the ways we remember them but also in how they have shaped who we are and the ways we live.
this was illustrated by the fact that each guest was asked to remember someone important to them and bring along a piece of food or drink which was significant to them.
i talked about my grandma and her strength of character while passing round penny sweets which reminded me of the trips we used to take to the local sweet shop when we visited - that's my brother and i with her in the central photo, plus my tray of sweets which were shared and then placed on the ofrenda.
david talked about his granddad while we sipped on “rum and pep” a drink of dark rum and peppermint cordial; there were cupcakes which reminded us of a grandmother who’d always baked; we talked about a much-missed sister as we sipped the red wine which was her favourite; chips from the local takeaway were a reminder of a seaside-loving step dad; there was homemade mint sauce to remember another grandma’s weekend roasts; and dorito crisps to remember a school friend who had died too young.
inevitably food is an important part of the celebration and i had fun coming up with a suitable menu. some components were not new – slow-roasted pork, corn & pumpkin bake (a seasonal variation on the corn and courgette bake i have made previously), black beans and yucatan pickled onions plus the new-to-me additions of green rice, pan de muerto (pictured above, a really delicious sweet bread; if you try this, make an indentation in the centre where the bones cross over otherwise the dough will be too thick and it won’t cook through properly) and iced skull cookies (mine are far less elegant than those that inspired me).
everyone was incredibly generous with their willingness to share their experiences and it was a really special way to spend an afternoon – one of our group is already planning her own el dia de los muertos style celebration and if you have the opportunity to experience something like this, i’d say do it, you’ll feel richer as a result.
many, many thanks to rachel and pablo for arranging and sharing this with us. i hope it is not the last time i celebrate el dia de los muertos, despite finding yellow marigold petals scattered in and around the house for days afterwards - they are traditionally used to guide the dead to the celebration.